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Los Zetas also has pushed its way into legal and illegal businesses by killing, kidnapping or extorting those in control, a scheme known as “plata o plomo,” Spanish for “money or lead.” According to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence reports, gang members use their massive supply of weapons and high-tech equipment to instill fear to take over businesses.

Seeking to grab a larger portion of the $25 billion cocaine, heroin and marijuana market in the United States, Los Zetas is estimated to have between 1,000 and 3,000 hard-core members and 10,000 loyalists across Mexico, Central America and the United States. Authorities said the gang has organized a sophisticated supply and distribution network through its established territories.

“The Zetas are quite diversified and they are good bookkeepers,” said Mr. Grayson, the College of William & Mary professor. “They will go where they can make money and will do what they have to do to make it happen.”